TUCSON, Ariz. — How did second-ranked Arizona get its groove back?
Well, it went back to its staple — defense. And with it came the offense.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said he felt his team would play well Sunday night against visiting Oregon State but wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. As it turned out, the Wildcats played perhaps their best all-around game in nearly a month in beating the visiting Beavers 76-54 in McKale Center.
"I thought we had a confidence about us and that we’d play well … for sure," Miller said.
"Confidence" was the buzzword Sunday night as Arizona improved to 23-1 overall and 10-1 in the Pac-12. And it made sense after the Wildcats finally together the all-around performance they knew they were capable of after four straight games in which they either either had to rally for a win or tried to rally but couldn’t finish it off. In this one, Arizona put the pressure on about midway through the first half and kept it there the rest of the way.
"Today, we couldn’t stop them," said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. "We have been holding guys in the high 30s, low 40s for shooting percentages. They shot 50 percent. This is a good team here; it’s fun to watch when you aren’t beat by them."
With the loss, the Beavers fell to 13-10 overall and 5-6 in the Pac-12.
Arizona took some time get going, grabbing a 21-18 lead on Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer with 8:02 left in the half before taking control.
It wasn’t a lack for trying early, though. Arizona looked aggressive in all phases, going to the basket like a team possessed and playing defense like it had earlier in the season.
"Any time you can win like this in the conference, it feels good," said Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, who had 11 points, six assists and six rebounds. "Oregon State is a great team. I felt we were clicking on offense and defense. There were some times on defense where we struggled a bit, but we made up for it on offense."
The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the floor, their best since shooting 54 percent in a blowout win over rival Arizona State last month.
Oh, and guess who is up next? Yes, Arizona State on Friday in Tempe.
For Arizona, the numbers told the story. The Wildcats outrebounded the Beavers 39-24 while accumulating 15 assists and just eight turnovers. They also had seven steals, and they didn’t allow the nation’s third-best 3-point shooting team much on the perimeter, as Oregon State went just 4 of 12 from beyond the arc.
"When we play defense like we do, it’s not surprising," said McConnell. "It’s all just effort on defense and executing on offense. We were at our best."
Arizona found its identity again, as Gordon put it. The Wildcats grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and gave up just four, with the Beavers finishing with zero second-chance points.
"Our identity is offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds," said Gordon. "I personally hadn’t been blocking out, but I took it upon myself to block out this game."
McConnell said Gordon was just being hard on himself; it wasn’t like the freshman hadn’t been going after rebounds. And Sunday night was proof. It was also proof — maybe? — that Gordon can shoot from the perimeter, as the phenom hit his first 3-pointer in nearly two months. No one needed to remind him of that, as he all but corrected a reporter when he was told he hadn’t shot a 3 since mid-December.
"I hadn’t made one," he said with a smile. "It helped my confidence a little. I know I’m a very capable shooter. (But) to see one goes down just feels good. I’m just going to continue to shoot and have confidence in it."
In the end, Gordon finished with a game-high 17 points, going 8 of 12 from the foor. Miller said Gordon and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were the players of the game, rattling off their combined stats on his radio show. They combined to go 14 for 25 overall and 4 for 6 from the free-throw line. Between the two, Arizona got 33 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals and one block.
"They were the two best players in the game," Miller said. "They were the lion’s share of what we did well."
Gordon looked aggressive all night. And when he is, Arizona is a much different team.
"He’s finding his way," Miller said. "Sometimes teams are choosing to not guard him, and we have to help him to put the ball in a good position so when they choose not to (guard him), he can really punish them. We did that better tonight. When he gets the ball in and around the key area — good luck."
It was such a decisive win for the Wildcats that Miller was finally able to get his bench some minutes. They didn’t disappoint, with senior guard Jordin Mayes scoring nine points in five minutes and freshman guard Elliott Pitts playing 14 minutes and getting three rebounds.
"I felt good out there," Mayes said. "It was neat seeing the ball go through the rim, giving me good confidence."
What does it do moving forward? It’s all about belief.
"It’s about me believing in me and my teammates believing in me," Mayes said. "Just going out there and playing basketball. Getting in and hitting open shots."
Miller said Pitts has done a good job in the three games he’s played in lately, even on Sunday, when he was 0 for 3 from beyond the arc. All were good shots, Miller said.
"It’s not easy to make them when you’ve sitting for so long this year," Miller said. "We’ve talked to him about being aggressive. It gives us another shooter and opens the court up, and it gives us a different look.